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1.10.3 Thin Ice

There are a few situations where seemingly harmless use of a borrowed reference can lead to problems. These all have to do with implicit invocations of the interpreter, which can cause the owner of a reference to dispose of it.

The first and most important case to know about is using Py_DECREF() on an unrelated object while borrowing a reference to a list item. For instance:

void
bug(PyObject *list)
{
    PyObject *item = PyList_GetItem(list, 0);

    PyList_SetItem(list, 1, PyInt_FromLong(0L));
    PyObject_Print(item, stdout, 0); /* BUG! */
}

This function first borrows a reference to list[0], then replaces list[1] with the value 0, and finally prints the borrowed reference. Looks harmless, right? But it's not!

Let's follow the control flow into PyList_SetItem(). The list owns references to all its items, so when item 1 is replaced, it has to dispose of the original item 1. Now let's suppose the original item 1 was an instance of a user-defined class, and let's further suppose that the class defined a __del__() method. If this class instance has a reference count of 1, disposing of it will call its __del__() method.

Since it is written in Python, the __del__() method can execute arbitrary Python code. Could it perhaps do something to invalidate the reference to item in bug()? You bet! Assuming that the list passed into bug() is accessible to the __del__() method, it could execute a statement to the effect of "del list[0]", and assuming this was the last reference to that object, it would free the memory associated with it, thereby invalidating item.

The solution, once you know the source of the problem, is easy: temporarily increment the reference count. The correct version of the function reads:

void
no_bug(PyObject *list)
{
    PyObject *item = PyList_GetItem(list, 0);

    Py_INCREF(item);
    PyList_SetItem(list, 1, PyInt_FromLong(0L));
    PyObject_Print(item, stdout, 0);
    Py_DECREF(item);
}

This is a true story. An older version of Python contained variants of this bug and someone spent a considerable amount of time in a C debugger to figure out why his __del__() methods would fail...

The second case of problems with a borrowed reference is a variant involving threads. Normally, multiple threads in the Python interpreter can't get in each other's way, because there is a global lock protecting Python's entire object space. However, it is possible to temporarily release this lock using the macro Py_BEGIN_ALLOW_THREADS, and to re-acquire it using Py_END_ALLOW_THREADS. This is common around blocking I/O calls, to let other threads use the processor while waiting for the I/O to complete. Obviously, the following function has the same problem as the previous one:

void
bug(PyObject *list)
{
    PyObject *item = PyList_GetItem(list, 0);
    Py_BEGIN_ALLOW_THREADS
    ...some blocking I/O call...
    Py_END_ALLOW_THREADS
    PyObject_Print(item, stdout, 0); /* BUG! */
}

 

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